Magazine article The Spectator

Licence to Snoop: The Police and Mobile Phones

Magazine article The Spectator

Licence to Snoop: The Police and Mobile Phones

Article excerpt

Police are using an anti-terror law to run wild in the public's mobile phone records


At its peak, the Stasi employed one agent for every 165 East Germans. Spying was a labour-intensive business then -- you needed to monitor telephone calls, steam open mail, plant a bug, follow suspects on shopping trips and then write reports for the KGB. The advantage was that, human nature being what it is, the Stasi would probably succeed in gathering dirt on all but the most saintly. The drawback: trying to gather files on so many millions could almost bankrupt a government.

How much easier it is nowadays. By interrogating someone's mobile phone, the police can gather more information than the Stasi could dream of compiling. The modern smartphone contains all the secrets of a life: bank balances, emails to lawyers, texts to lovers. There are apps for gambling addiction, even pregnancy advice. Your phone knows how fast you've driven and where you've been -- not just within a town, but within a room. All this can be used as evidence against you, should the authorities find it useful.

This is why the unfolding scandal of police hacking journalists' phones matters. Like the media phone-hacking scandal that led to the Leveson inquiry, it offers a glimpse into an abuse of power that doubtless involves far more victims. Phone hacking arose when private detectives realised that new technology allowed them to hack into the voicemails of victims. With police hacking, the bobbies worked out that new technology and new laws let them ask for the phone records of any journalist -- they no longer had to go through the tiresome ritual of asking 'Who's your source?' and being told to get stuffed. They could just grab the journalists' phone records and work it out for themselves.

The first such case that came to light involved Tom Newton Dunn, political editor of the Sun . The Metropolitan Police wanted the name of one of his contacts, and knew better than to ask. So they ordered Vodafone to hand over his phone records. Vodafone obliged: under the law, it has to.

This month, another newspaper found it had been targeted by the police: the Mail on Sunday had spent £150,000 in legal fees to protect its source in the Chris Huhne speeding points saga -- which it succeeded in doing. Until Kent Police secretly ordered the phone records of a Mail on Sunday journalist and found the source that way.

All this raises obvious and urgent questions: do we believe that journalists are the only unknowing victims of police hacking? Who else do they target, how often -- and why? And how long have they been doing it?

Like many curtailments of British liberties, this started off in the name of fighting terrorism. Since the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) was passed 14 years ago, an average 500,000 pieces of communications data have been demanded by police, intelligence services and the taxman. Ripa was intended as anti-terror legislation but last year, for example, the police made seven requests for every one issued by spies. It suits the police to hide behind the phrase 'security services', which has strong connotations of MI5. Spies never talk, so their name is easily used in vain.

It was the police, not the spooks, who wanted the power to imprison suspects without charge for 90 days. And it's the police who are pressing for extra snooping powers now. Of course, the amount of data they have been able to seize has exploded as phones have turned into handheld computers. …

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